Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Revenant: Review

In several interviews leading up to the release of The Revenant, Alejandro Iñárritu was posed questions about the violence in his latest film. Nearly all his replies dwelt on the fact that he grew up in Mexico, which he felt was a “violent country”, and which had resulted in him taking movie violence more seriously than most directors. “I personally reject the concept of violence as an entertainment tool,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “I find cynicism in the detachment from the consequences of violence.”

It’s not like Iñárritu’s previous films—Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful and Birdman—have lacked for emotional and physical violence. But these are films set in modern times, within societies bound by at least the semblance of law. The Revenant takes place in the 1820s, in the wilds of the American Midwest. It’s a brutal climate, full of lawlessness and greed, with various groups of settlers and Native Americans battling for resources and land. By setting his film in such a world, Iñárritu seems to ask: when violence is inextricably linked one’s survival, how far are you allowed to go?

The film (based on actual events) begins with an attack on a camp of white fur trappers by Arikara Native Americans. Only a couple of men survive the battle that follows, among them the party’s captain, Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), the grizzled John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and the group’s guide, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his half-Pawnee son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). The next morning, Glass, scouting by himself in a forest, is charged by a bear. He manages to kill the animal, but not before he’s ripped up and thrown around in a terrifying scene that puts the brutality of the earlier battle into perspective. When the men find him, he’s barely alive. Nevertheless, Henry tells Fitzgerald to stay behind and see to Glass’ eventual burial while the rest of the company moves on.

It’s at this point that The Revenant presents—in what will be a recurring motif —a situation where self-interest must be weighed against loftier concerns like humanity and honour. No one in the company thinks Glass has a chance of surviving. There’s also the very real threat of the Arikari catching up with them. All this is voiced by Fitzgerald as justification for helping Glass along to what seems like an inevitable death. Unfortunately, Hawk catches him in the act, which leads to Fitzgerald knifing him as his father looks on, too badly injured to move. Fitzgerald then leaves Glass there to die, in a shallow grave.

Incredibly, Glass survives, and though he’s barely able to walk, sets off in pursuit of Fitzgerald. What follows is one of the most gruelling obstacle courses ever committed to film. Before the film ends, Glass must survive attacks by Native Americans and French trappers, a jump over a cliff, and a tense few minutes being borne along by an icy rapid, to say nothing of snowstorms and pouring rain and hunger. But he pushes on, lit from inside by the memories of his dead Pawnee wife (revealed in flashback to have been shot by army men) and his murdered son.

Though his motivation—revenge—is un-animal-like, Glass, survivor of a bear attack, starts to resemble a bear himself. He drapes a bearskin over himself. He wears the slain bear’s claws around his neck in a necklace. He even starts speaking in grunts, as if the wilderness had removed from his mind the last vestiges of human speech. As in The Wolf of Wall Street, DiCaprio’s physical commitment to the role is astonishing. Dragging himself along the snowy ground, grimacing in more ways than you’d think possible, it’s more endurance test than performance, but that’s true of the film as well.

The Revenant might be crazy, but it’s the right kind of crazy. Everything plays out at a feverish level of intensity; by the time Glass has pulled out a dead horse’s innards and crawled inside it to sleep, you’re tempted to applaud this as mere good sense. The long, brutal takes—so breath-taking, yet so boastful, in Iñárritu’s last film, Birdman—seem to heighten the surreal nature of the action, in much the same way as Sergey Urusevsky’s camera brought an unbroken intensity to the snow-bound 1959 film Letter Never Sent. In between all the weaving and ducking, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Oscar-winner in 2014 and 2015 and well on course for another, takes us so close to the characters that their breath occasionally fogs the lens.

With only a couple of days left for the Oscars, the battle for Best Picture would appear to be between Spotlight, the very model of restraint, and The Revenant, which wouldn’t know restraint if you served it on a plate with bison liver. Even if Spotlight does win, it’s Iñárritu’s more intensely cinematic vision that will likely be remembered 10 years down the line. Maybe it will find itself grouped with Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto; films about man’s inhumanity to man in the face of the unforgiving elements. Like these films, The Revenant refuses to draw clear-cut lines between the actions of protagonists and antagonists. Late in the film, Glass comes across a lynched Pawnee with a sign hanging from his body. “On est tous des sauvages,” it reads. We are all savages.

This review appeared in Mint.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Aligarh: Review

It’s night in Aligarh’s Medical Colony. The streets are empty, the only sound that of a train rattling by. We’re gazing up at the window of a nondescript first floor flat. A light comes on, and we see two figures inside, presumably the greying man and the rickshaw-puller who went up the staircase moments ago. We hear the sound of a light switch; on-off, on-off. Our attention is then diverted towards two men coming down the road. One of them is holding a camera. We watch as they ascend the stairs, disappear from view. Seconds later, muffled shouts are heard. The next thing we know, we’re inside the flat, watching the old man sitting naked on the floor, hugging his knees and crying.

In and of itself, this opening sequence of Aligarh is riveting—a lesson in concealment, from a film that’s been urging audiences to #ComeOut. What makes it poignant, though, is the way the film keeps returning to it, embellishing it. We see it through the eyes of the man left weeping on the floor: SR Siras, a 64-year-old professor of Marathi at Aligarh University. We also see it from the point of view of the intruders, affiliated with a local TV station, there to shoot a video of Siras in bed with his lover. We see it as a love scene, a crime scene, an ambush, as spectacle. It’s as if the film is showing us the many lenses Indian society uses to view homosexuality.

Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras was a real-life professor at Aligarh Muslim University. As in the film, his flat was broken into, and his private moments captured on film and leaked online. The next day, the university announced his suspension and gave him seven days to vacate his house. He challenged this verdict in the Allahabad High Court and won the case. Less than a week after the verdict, he was found dead in his flat, under “mysterious circumstances”. Traces of poison were discovered in his blood, but murder charges weren’t brought against anyone.

Aligarh, directed by Hansal Mehta and written by Apurva Asrani, tells this story through the bond that develops between Siras (Manoj Bajpayee) and a young journalist from Delhi, Deepu Sebastian (Rajkummar Rao), who’s interested in his case. The first time they meet, Siras’ blood pressure problems cause him to lose his balance, and Sebastian has to keep him from falling. The implication is clear: this shy, retiring old man could use a little support. The scenes with the two of them are beautifully written and played, with Siras gently deflecting Sebastian’s polite but blunt queries about his homosexuality. At one point, he objects to Sebastian asking if the man in his bed was his lover. “You’re making it sound like a dirty word,” he says, his voice genuinely pained. “I have a problem with that.”

Those who’ve followed Bajpayee’s career for a while will know that this isn’t the first time he’s played a mild-mannered outsider in a Hansal Mehta film. His Ram Saran Pandey in Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!! (2000) is in many ways a rough sketch for Professor Siras: they’re both romantics, soft-spoken, looking for acceptance, fond of their drink. Mehta builds his film around Bajpayee’s performance, allowing him long, uninterrupted scenes in which he can seemingly do nothing but enjoy a glass of whiskey and sing along to Lata Mangeshkar in the dark. “Aap ki nazro ne samjha, pyaar ke kaabil mujhe,” he murmurs along with the song from Anpadh—“In your eyes, I have been found capable of love”; a heart-breaking sentiment considering his situation.

After the intimacy of scenes like this, the more prosaic moments involving public support for Siras and his case were, for me, less absorbing. There’s a nod to the time he appeared on NDTV little over a month before his death, but the babble of insensitive studio voices sounds a bit too programmed. Even the scenes in court lack the bite of Mehta’s earlier film Shahid, perhaps because Siras’ lawyer (played by Ashish Vidyarthi) is articulate and sympathetic, while the prosecutor is presented as vaguely buffoonish. (It’s more rewarding to concentrate on the small, actorly things Bajpayee is doing on the edges of these scenes.) Satya Rai Nagpaul’s camera moves as incisively as it did in Anhey Ghorey Da Daan and Chauthi Koot, but the film’s aesthetic is, for the most part, anti-beauty. Which just throws into sharper relief the beauty of Bajpayee’s performance, and Rao’s self-effacing charm.

It’s inevitable that any cinematic rendering of gay lives in India will be seen and promoted as an “issue film”. This has certainly been the case with Aligarh, and I hope it sparks conversations about Section 377 in TV studios and living rooms. Yet, an even bigger victory might lie in getting vaguely homophobic audience members—who, let's face it, will probably outnumber the pro-gay viewers of this film—to empathize with Siras, to understand his distaste for easy labels, to admit that even they sit in the dark with a drink and listen to old Hindi film songs.

This review appeared in Mint.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Neerja: Review

In 2002, a film called Let’s Talk released in theatres and, in all likelihood, exited them soon after. Directed by a first-timer called Ram Madhvani, it was a marvellously unsettling, unrelenting chamber piece. This week, Madhvani is back with his second film, Neerja. Unlike Let’s Talk, he has a substantial budget this time, and a star to help open the film. What remains the same, though, is his capacity to sustain tension over the length of a film.

On 5 September 1986, a 22-year-old former model from Mumbai named Neerja Bhanot was making her first flight as purser on Pan Am 73. At Karachi airport, the plane was stormed by four Libyan terrorists. Bhanot, the senior-most cabin crew member, managed to get a message through to the cockpit, which allowed the pilots to escape. Later, she had the presence of mind not to hand over any American passports, an action which prevented the terrorists from using the US citizens on board as bargaining chips. Finally, in the chaos that ensued when the military stormed the plane, she opened the emergency exit and got passengers to deplane. She was killed in the process, but 359 of the 379 on that plane survived because of her. In 1987, she was given a posthumous Ashok Chakra, India’s highest peacetime gallantry award.

The film takes its time getting Bhanot (Sonam Kapoor) on to the plane, alternating scenes of her and her close-knit family with ones of the terrorists preparing for their mission. This is reminiscent of Paul Greengrass’ cross-cutting at the start of Captain Phillips, but Madhvani wrings more emotion out of it by making Neerja’s parents (played beautifully by Yogendra Tiku and Shabana Azmi) compelling characters in their own right. We return to them at regular intervals, and their conviction that their daughter will return home safe becomes as moving as Bhanot’s courage under duress.

The film suggests an unusual emotional impetus for Bhanot’s bravery by linking, through a recurring flashback, her passivity in a recently ended abusive relationship to her decisiveness during the hijacking. It is a reminder that courage can spring unbidden, much like the crises that prompt it. Kapoor, in a break from her usual achingly hip persona, presents Bhanot as a believable mixture of quick thinking and barely suppressed panic. The roving camera seems to mirror her nervousness, flitting around, capturing little details on the corners of the frame (cinematographer Mitesh Mirchandani deserves credit for making such dynamic use of an enclosed space).

If there’s one quibble I had with Neerja—apart from a couple of moments of sentimental overreach, like the song sequence which cross-cuts between Azmi in her home and mothers on the plane comforting their children—it’s in the way it presents the hijackers. It might be asking too much in a film about Bhanot to make her killers fleshed-out characters, but Neerja might have gained in depth had it at least revealed a little about the terrorists’ motivations and aims (Captain Phillips, for instance, at least gives us a glimpse of the pirates’ lives). Without context, the hijackers are just another bunch of crazed, bearded, armed men shouting in Arabic—a stereotype Indian cinema seems to fall back on as readily as Hollywood.

This review appeared in Mint.

Spotlight: Review

There are many great films about journalists, but only a few excellent ones about journalism. It’s easy to see why. Journalists, those deadline-battling, chain-smoking mythical beings, make for naturally exciting cinema. But the actual stuff of journalism—the late nights and false starts, the endless cups of coffee, the decidedly unglamorous pursuit of a source for a quote—is tougher to weld into movie magic.

Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight is that rare film that is first and foremost about journalism. Methodically but stirringly, it tells us of the time in 2001 when The Boston Globe—more precisely, the investigative “Spotlight” team of Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James)—stumbled upon, investigated and reported a story on the Boston Catholic church shielding priests guilty of sexual abuse. It is a film about the many things, big and small, mundane and pivotal, that go into reporting something of this magnitude (note that McCarthy played a journalist in the last season of the TV series The Wire, another forensic look at a newspaper office).

We see the story’s genesis in a staff meeting, with the paper’s newly appointed editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), bringing up a column about a lawyer named Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who claims to have proof that the archbishop of Boston knew of a particular priest who had molested children but had done nothing about it. Baron asks Robinson, head of Spotlight, to follow up. The team speaks to Garabedian, then to some of the victims and church officials. As they continue to dig, they realize the cover-up is on a much larger scale than they or anyone else had imagined.

Their investigation is made all the more difficult by the seemingly all-pervasive influence of the Catholic church in Boston. One of the first things Baron must do as a new editor in town is meet the cardinal, and even a lapsed Catholic such as Pfeiffer will make small talk with her grandmother about which particular priest is likely to be present at a church-organized event. Even in Boston crime dramas such as Black Mass or The Departed, Catholicism is a constant. Spotlight, in a sense, is a crime drama as well, except that here religion isn’t the alternative but the cause of concern.

It’s difficult to talk about Spotlight without mentioning that other film about a massive conspiracy exposed by a couple of reporters. Those looking for signs of All The President’s Men in Spotlight will find them in jumpy conversations, the sterile white offices, a mention of “deep background”, even a scene in which the camera follows a character running at night. Debts notwithstanding, Spotlight can claim to be that film’s equal in just about every department except one: its visual sense. Gordon Willis was the director of photography on President’s Men, and his off-centre framing and noir interludes were another way of signalling a country in disarray. Spotlight, by contrast, is competently but unmemorably shot, sticking for the most part to rudimentary camera set-ups and letting the writing and performances carry the film.

But what writing it is, and what performances they are. The screenplay (by McCarthy and Josh Singer) isn’t overly eager or smart; time and again, it promotes perseverance over wit and moral superiority, which might not have been the case if someone like Aaron Sorkin had written this. Ruffalo gets the film’s showiest part and does a fine job, telegraphing Rezendes’ emotional state through subtle changes in body language and facial expression. Keaton, Tucci and McAdams are all compelling, but I found myself looking forward to the moments when Schreiber would appear on screen. His Marty Baron is careful, undemonstrative, steadfast and vital: the ideal editor, in a film that takes seriously the ideals of journalism.

This review appeared in Mint.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Deadpool: Review

Deadpool signals its intention with its opening credits. Instead of cast and crew names, we get a series of super-honest monikers: Star Ryan Reynolds is “Sexiest man alive”, antagonist Ed Skrein “A British villain”, director Tim Miller “An overpaid tool”. Within 15 minutes of the film starting, we have seen a single bullet enter and exit the skulls of three men standing in single file. We see a body hurled against a billboard and splatter. Later, there’s a scene with the hero being pegged by his girlfriend. There’s also a fleeting glimpse of Reynolds’ nether regions during a fight scene. All this, in a comic book movie.

So sure, Deadpool is subversive. It is also very keen to be seen as subversive. There’s more cussing, violence and nudity here than in any previous comic book movie, but what registers even more is the film’s constant vigilance against even the smallest of superhero tropes. As soon as a cliché raises its head, the film jumps on it, hitting it back with a wisecrack or a filthy joke or someone’s head exploding. It is fascinating to see this sort of undercutting going on, like someone repeatedly sawing off the branch they are sitting on.

Deadpool is a vigilante anti-hero in the X-Men universe of Marvel comics; those with a memory for such things might remember that Reynolds had briefly turned up as the character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). This film is an origin story as well: It tells us how Wade Wilson, an ex-Special Forces soldier, is transformed into a disfigured mutant with super strength and the ability to heal quickly. After his transformation, Wade escapes from the facility in which he’s being held, dons a mask and an alter-ego, and goes looking for Ajax (Skrein), the mutant who made his face look, as his friend puts it, like an avocado had had sex with an older avocado. We get most of the backstory—including his relationship with his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin)—in two long, loping flashbacks: The film’s desire to mess around extends to its structure as well.

It isn’t like Deadpool does not have genre precedent. Kick-Ass was almost as filthy a comic book movie, and Ant-Man was just as willing to poke fun at its own clichés. But Miller takes everything further, breaking the fourth wall repeatedly and reminding the audience that this is a studio film. The near-constant stream of emotional undercut and verbal upper-cut is bracing; you never know when the bottom might drop out of a conversation, or a scene. Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s screenplay is closer to the culturally aware, quick-witted work of Michael Bacall (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World; the Jump Street movies) than the banter of The Avengers or Guardians Of The Galaxy (it’s also much funnier than Kick-Ass, which was transgression without wit).

Deadpool is the first big-screen manifestation of what Marvel has been doing on TV with Jessica Jones and Daredevil: creating options for the adult comic fan. It’s an indication of how utterly dominant the comic book movie is today that Marvel and DC can afford to fragment the market: Spider-Man for children, X-Men for the socially aware teens, Suicide Squad for the near-adults, Ant-Man for the hipsters. Deadpool is both part of this market and apart from it, game enough to wear the suit and mask but also willing to bite the hand that feeds it. Which is reason enough to root for the franchise, for now.

This review appeared in Mint.

Fitoor: Review

Sometimes a review doesn't quite take off. Was sad this one didn't, though, because I love the book and the Cuaron film. 

Great Expectations has been adapted for screens big and small over a dozen times. At least two of these attempts have proved memorable: David Lean’s 1946 version, with its expressionist touches, and Alfonso Cuarón’s sensuous modern-day adaptation, with Gwyneth Paltrow as the enigmatic, unattainable Estella. Whether Abhishek Kapoor has seen these films isn’t clear, but what is undeniable is that he has made a version that’s uniquely his. Fitoor is lush and aching, more Regency novel than Dickens. And it works, but only up to a point.

We will come to that point shortly, but first, let’s take a moment to dwell on Fitoor’s glorious opening stretch, half an hour of beauty for beauty’s sake. It unfolds in Srinagar—not the scarred war zone of Haider but a snowy cinematic dreamland. Buoyed by Amit Trivedi’s hushed soundtrack and Anay Goswami’s elegant, gliding camera, we receive fragments of a story as if in a dream. A young boy called Noor is accosted by a wild-looking convict and is scared into bringing him food. Later, the same boy visits a rich recluse, Begum Hazrat. He meets her daughter, Firdaus, and instantly falls for her. She, however, keeps him at arm’s length, something Begum notices and seems to delight in.

The idea that a single small event might set the course of our lives is at the heart of Great Expectations. ("Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day".) In Fitoor, as in the book, this first link is made when Noor lays eyes on Firdaus—though there are other fateful encounters he will learn about in due course. After Firdaus is sent away to London and Begum (Tabu) tells Noor that he must become worthy of her, the film skips forward 15 years. Noor (Aditya Roy Kapoor), now a budding artist, is offered a residency in Delhi. His benefactor remains unnamed, but he assumes that it’s Begum helping him win over her daughter. Soon, we meet the grown-up Firdaus, which is when the film starts losing its grip.

Firdaus is played by Katrina Kaif, and one can see why, on paper, this might make sense. Estella keeps a tight lid on her emotions, which would seem to suit Kaif’s range, which has broadened only slightly in the last 12 years. But Estella, raised by Miss Havisham as her revenge on men, is a difficult part, and Kaif, hard as she might try, isn’t the right actor to get to convey complicated emotional states. The problem isn’t just the actor’s familiar undisturbed surface, but her inability to suggest that something is going on underneath. Roy Kapoor does make you feel for Noor intermittently, but his character exists only to love Firdaus, and no matter what he does, she’s never as interesting to us as she is to him.

It is left to Tabu to keep pulling the viewer back into the film. Her Begum is less decrepit than Dickens’ Miss Havisham, but the ruin is plain in Tabu’s eyes and body. Dark circles under her eyes, her voice a perpetual sigh, Begum—for all her manipulation of Noor—is a tragic figure, something the film accentuates by giving her a flashback of her own. The normally understated Tabu embraces Begum’s theatricality, playing her with a building hysteria that soon outpaces the rest of the film in emotional intensity.

It would be unfair to lay all the problems of the film at Kaif’s doorstep. Certain essential passages are fumbled; when the grown-up Noor meets the convict, the scene barely registers, even though it’s a dramatic high point in the novel. The scenes set in Delhi’s art world are unbearably pretentious—the contrast between their insider lingo and the Urdu that’s spoken in the rest of the film is jarring. But these drawbacks might have seemed minor if the actor playing Firdaus had the right mixture of sadness and sadism. As it stands, Fitoor is about Noor, Noor is all about Firdaus, and Firdaus is a beautiful blank.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Inside selfie stardom

Wrote this for the Mint Lounge Photography Special. 

The selfie has been around in some form or the other since the invention of the daguerreotype in the first half of the 19th century. The advent of phone cameras brought it to the edges of the cultural mainstream, though it was the front-facing camera that ensured taking photographs of oneself needn’t be a furtive, inaccurate exercise. About a decade later, the selfie is all-pervasive, all-conquering. Narcissus would have approved of a society in which gazing at oneself, liking what one sees and offering up the same to public scrutiny is, far from being punishable, actually encouraged. All around the world, faces preen and pout, smirk and smoulder at their mobile phones, eager for a small dose of social validation, a couple of dozen hearts on Instagram.

India, eager adopter of global trends, has taken to selfies with duck-faced enthusiasm. With our Prime Minister’s penchant for training the camera on himself, we’ve literally become a top-down selfie society. From Hauz Khas Village in Delhi to actual villages, countless people every day are taking pictures of themselves, showing them to their friends, sharing them on social media. The ones with the largest Instagram followings are people who are already famous for something: actors, singers, models, politicians. Yet, it’s the ones on the rung below them that are India’s real selfie stars, known for nothing much more than a willingness to share pictures of themselves.

For Clince Varghese, the selfie is a calling card. A multi-hyphenate to beat most multi-hyphenates, this 24-year-old Mumbaikar is a motivational speaker/anchor/actor/voice-over artiste/vocalist in a rock band. He’s also a travel nut who takes an inordinate number of selfies—qualities that came in handy when he was selected as one of the contestants for MTV’s Great Selfie Challenge last year. Varghese went on to garner 25,623,050 votes and win the show (and the title of “selfie king”). For the “international border selfie” task, he had taken a selfie on a beach at Rameswaram. “I’m blowing a conch while lying on the beach, with the selfie stick between my legs,” he says over phone. “I timed it so the water is hitting my hair. I included the conch because it dispels negative energy.”

If you think all this suggests that Varghese takes selfies more seriously than the average Instagrammer, you are absolutely right. “It’s very difficult, bro,” he says, when asked whether he agonized over which photograph of his to put online. “It’s like asking a parent which kid they like best.” He posts on Instagram at least once a day, mostly selfies or velfies. “Most of my selfies are me trying to tell a story,” he says. “They have sociocultural elements, from culture and religion to food and biodiversity. It’s not just me opening my mouth and saying ooh-la-la.” This is true, even if Varghese’s signature expression is a comically wide-eyed, open-mouthed one.

Along with Instagram, Varghese posts on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter; he knows his various followings all feed into one another. This idea of a rounded social media persona has also been adopted—albeit in a more professional manner—by Scherezade Shroff, a 29-year-old YouTuber, fashion blogger and former model who is also a qualified lawyer. “I don’t see my Instagram account as an independent entity,” she says, adding that a lot of her followers probably see her fashion-centric videos on YouTube and follow her on Instagram. Sometimes, the content crosses over, like when Shroff uploaded a 10-minute YouTube tutorial on “How to take the perfect selfie” (look and feel your best; never take just one; express yourself; make a collage and use filters; buy a Monopod).

With over 60,000 followers, Shroff’s Instagram feed is very popular, though she says she puts little thought into her selfies. “Honestly, I don’t feel like this is a serious platform for me,” she says. “I try and have fun with my viewers.” For someone with a professional interest in being perfectly turned out, many of her Instagram posts are gratifyingly casual, even kooky. She appears sans make-up in a number of selfies and has what one assumes is a very un-model-like propensity for the duck face. “Most times, people tell me they like my Instagram account because it’s very real,” she says. “There have been selfies on my worst days and on my best days as well.”

The impression of candidness, whether genuine or carefully curated, is integral to a certain kind of selfie stardom. Most of the selfie-takers we spoke to insisted that perfect photos weren’t the goal; what they’re normally after are photographs which convey their “personality”. Oftentimes, a good hook backed up by consistent posting is all that’s required for an Instagram account to take off. Last year, Jet Airways pilot Simran Kaur started posting pictures in uniform on Instagram. She had some 150-200 followers at the time. Today, she has over 27,000. “I still get maximum ‘likes’ for uniform selfies—always a thousand-plus,” the 26-year-old says. Her sister, Amrit, is also a pilot: She has 12,500 followers, and a higher selfie-to-regular-photograph ratio than anyone I’ve ever seen.

The selfie is a perfect photographic embodiment of the look-at-me digital era; by making yourself the subject, you’re inviting people to pass judgement not only on your photograph but also on you. It stands to reason, then, that even those with large followings pay close attention to the responses their posts are evoking. Shroff, Simran Kaur and Varghese all say they adopted their signature expressions (duck face, V-sign, open mouth) after people started pointing them out in post after post. They took notice if a particular post didn’t do as well as others. “I do pre-analysis, post-analysis,” Varghese says, admitting that he had spent the half-hour before our conversation just deciding whom to tag in a particular post.

Even as India hits peak selfie, the world seems to be stumbling towards a post-selfie era. Already, there are signs that suggest the selfie is being questioned, dissected. In Los Angeles in 2014, an artist named Amalia Ulman revealed that the seemingly banal posts—many of them skimpily clad selfies—she had been putting on Instagram for months were actually part of an art project called “Excellences and Perfections”. The Cannes Film Festival instituted a no-selfie rule on the red carpet last year. Hopefully, by the time India’s hipster crowd decides they’re so over selfies, Varghese, Shroff, Kaur and their fellow kings and queens would have garnered enough Likes to last them a lifetime.

Sanam Teri Kasam: Review

I’ve never seen anyone cry as much in a single film as Mawra Hocane does in Sanam Teri Kasam. Not that her character, Saraswati, doesn’t have reason enough to shed tears—the film is essentially built around her being picked on, berated, slapped, made over, toyed with and sacrificed. It would also be churlish not to admit that Hocane has a certain flair for onscreen crying. As Saraswati’s love, Inder (Telugu actor Harshvardhan Rane), bluntly puts it: “When I see crying girls, I run away. But when you cry, I want to kiss you.”

At certain points in Sanam Teri Kasam, I felt like shedding tears myself. After being discovered in Inder’s flat, treating his wounds, Saraswati—who can’t get a man to agree to marry her and is a terrible disappointment to her family because of this—is thrown out by her caricature of a Tamil dad. Inder, who’s so bad-ass he rarely wears a shirt and drinks milk straight from the Tetra Pak, feels responsible; he finds her a flat, then sets about finding her a husband. I felt the sniffles coming on when Saraswati, post-makeover, tells him: “This pretty face you’ve given me, I won’t waste it.” Of course, no one bothers to tell Saraswati that the pretty face is hers, and that Inder has just found her a good barber. And a sob might have escaped me when Inder looks at Saraswati and says, by way of warning her not to fall for him: “I’m a beast.”

Eventually, the beast and the librarian (with a name like Saraswati, what do you expect?) fall in love, but there’s more bad luck in store for the two, because this is “a love story sealed with a curse”. If you’re the viewer, this curse lifts after 154 minutes, by which time we’ve been introduced to Mumbai’s most forgiving cop, the worst fiancée in the world and the most literal interpretation of the phrase “You’re dead to me”. The directors, Radhika Rao and Vinay Sapru, obviously believe in their film; little details from early on pop up in later scenes, and the last 20 minutes are dragged out like they’re Sundance material. But it’s very difficult to take the film as seriously as they do—especially after it becomes clear that they’re unwilling to grant their female lead the slightest bit of agency. But Hocane, a Pakistani VJ-turned-actor, does just enough to suggest that she’d be effective in more capable hands.

This review appeared in Mint.

The Finest Hours: Review

In 1952, off the coast of Chatham, Massachusetts, US, the SS Pendleton was split in half by a terrible storm. The ship’s bow sunk and eight people, including the captain, drowned. Miraculously, the stern stayed afloat and was steered to a sandbar, where the crew waited for help. Even more miraculously, considering the severity of the storm, help was on its way, in the form a four-member coastguard crew headed by one Bernard Webber. They saved the lives of 32 crewmen, and the event is regarded as one of the finest small-boat rescues in coastguard history.

This rescue is now on screen in the form of The Finest Hours, an exercise in stoic, square-jawed film-making. Time and again, someone points out how bad the storm is, how suicidal the mission seems, only to get a stubbornly heroic response from Webber (Chris Pine, stoic like Gary Cooper), quoting the unofficial motto of the coastguard: “They say you gotta go out.” Almost as tight-lipped and duty-bound is Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck, stoic like Steve McQueen), who takes charge of the Pendleton after it splits, navigating it to a sandbar with the help of a largely sceptical crew.

Most directors would have begun this film with the Pendleton splitting in two, but Craig Gillespie chooses to linger over the sweet but seemingly insignificant episode of Webber out on a blind date with Miriam (Holliday Grainger), his future wife. It’s an atypical start, but a canny one: It tells us how duty-bound Webber can be (before they get the distress call, he’s fretting over asking his superior officer for leave for his own wedding day), as well as how uncomfortable he is on land, interacting with people. It makes it easy for us to understand his ease on his boat, navigating mountainous waves without a compass.

This is meat-and-potatoes film-making, but if you aren’t averse to a lot of scenes with tough guys gritting their teeth, The Finest Hours is a reasonably engaging 120-odd minutes. The towering, roiling waves look pretty much like the VFX that they are, but the snowstorm that hits the land is unbelievably beautiful. While Pine and Affleck are reticent to the point of being almost closed off to the audience, Ben Foster, Kyle Gallner and John Magaro are very good as Webber’s crew. Carter Burwell’s music is as sweeping and warm as you would expect from a Disney film on a maritime rescue mission.

This review appeared in Mint.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Saala Khadoos: Review

In Saala Khadoos, you’ll hear it said more than once that if you remove corruption from sports, you’ll find a hundred champions on every street. Silly as that statement is, it’s one of the few original thoughts this film has. It’s difficult to get through a scene without running into something that’s been lifted from another sports film or is such a cliché that it belongs to the genre at large. There’s the former athlete looking for redemption (shades of Chak De India!). There’s the wilful underdog female boxer (shades of Million Dollar Baby). There’s the comic-relief assistant (Rocky), sports authority villain (Chak De again), warring siblings (Brothers), untimely injury and eventual fight-back. Saala Khadoos borrows from everyone and ends up a pale imitation of its sources.

Adi (R. Madhavan) is a former boxer with Hulk-level anger issues. After his career was curtailed by a motivated injury, he became a coach, but his behaviour is like that of a righteous Mike Tyson. After he grabs the boxing federation head’s testicles, he’s transferred from Hisar to Chennai. There, he comes across Madhi (Ritika Singh), a fish-seller with no formal training but uncommon spirit. Soon, hothead is coaching hothead, and the result is as screechy and over-the-top as you would imagine.

Though this is a film in Hindi, it doesn’t feel like a Hindi film. The director is Sudha Kongara Prasad, a former assistant of Mani Ratnam; her first two films, were in Telugu and Tamil, respectively. In addition to Hindi, Saala Khadoos has also been shot in Tamil as Irudhi Suttru, and one can tell that this is the language the makers are thinking in. Though the second lead is a fish-seller in Chennai, she speaks like a Mumbai tapori. The dialogue sounds like it’s been translated from Tamil. Even the filmic grammar—the tenor of the drunken scenes, the style of dancing—has a recognizably southern feel to it.

That’s not the end of Saala Khadoos’ problems. We never know why Madhi goes from hating Adi in one scene to falling for him in the next, but more than being hurried, it just feels wrong—a reiteration of that hoary belief that sportspersons of the opposite gender who spend time in close quarters will eventually be attracted to each other. Singh, a former boxer, is convincing as an onscreen athlete, but the film tries to give her a force-of-nature cuteness that is very trying. Madhavan, sporting a newly buff look and shaggy mane, is all gruff barks and bluster. It’s tough to take his character—or a film with lines like “I clean shit but you stink”—seriously.

This review appeared in Mint.

Room: Review

One of the things we go to the movies for are sights unseen. These could be as elaborate as a meteor shower in space or a dinosaur towering over a child. But they can also be on a minute scale, like the gradual ageing of the protagonist in Boyhood or the sugar-cube absorbing coffee in Three Colours: Blue. Or the first 45 minutes of Room, which show us what it might be like to build a life—a world, really—in miniature.

In these 45 minutes, we see Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and his mother, Joy (Brie Larson), negotiate the intimate contours of their very small universe. Piece by piece, we’re given fragments of their story: Joy was abducted when she was 17 by someone they know only as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). She has been held in captivity in his basement—which has a skylight, a bed, a bathtub, an oven, a TV and little else—for seven years, during which she has been raped repeatedly by Nick. Two years in, Joy became pregnant with Jack, and she has raised him in the room.

Room has been directed by Lenny Abrahamson and is based on Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel of the same name. Donoghue, who also did the screenplay, gives this grim material a blackly comic twist by having Joy raise Jack to believe that there’s no outside world, only Room and TV Land. But there’s only so long that she can continue with this fabrication, and soon after the film gets underway, Joy starts devising a plan to get them out of prison.

The break, when it comes, is the most exhilarating sequence in the film. To see Jack’s eyes shoot open and try to take in the outdoors, all at once, for the first time, is a weirdly magical moment. To top this would have been near impossible, and Abrahamson doesn’t try to. The rest of the nearly 2-hour film is Jack and Joy adjusting to life outside Room, and though it’s sensitively done, it feels like any other well-directed recovery drama—depressed parent, anxious grandparents, precocious child. Yet, even then there are beautiful moments, such as when Jack is introduced to a pet dog for the first time, or agrees to have his long hair cut in the hope that it’ll cheer up his mother.

Abrahamson and Donoghue have adapted the source material faithfully; you’re in the best position to enjoy Room if you haven’t read the novel or seen the over-explicit trailer. It would have been interesting to see what a more visually inventive approach might have achieved—Abrahamson seems a touch cautious in this respect. But it’s difficult to imagine better performances than the ones Larson and nine-year-old Tremblay give. With the exception of the escape, I doubt specific scenes from Room will be stuck in my mind after a few years. But I’m confident I’ll remember Larson’s desperation and Tremblay’s terrified, awestruck expression when he sees the real world.

This review appeared in Mint.

Mastizaade: Review

Early on in Mastizaade, Aditya (Vir Das) and Sunny (Tusshar Kapoor) say something along the lines of, “Superman has X-ray, we have chicks-ray.” Why not just say “sex-ray”? It’s not particularly clever, but it rhymes and is a sight better than “chicks-ray”. Now, it’s possible that the censor board decided that “sex-ray” was too outrageous and made them change it. But this is an undertaking (I hesitate to call it a film) so lazy and infantile, I feel no obligation to give the benefit of doubt to its makers.

Mastizaade doesn’t have a story worth detailing. It’s a bunch of loosely connected skits built around Aditya and Sunny’s attempts to get with, respectively, Laila Lele (Sunny Leone) and her sister Lily (also Leone, wearing spectacles). The onslaught of failed gags is relentless; there’s no attempt to build anything like a narrative in between jokes about round and pointy objects. After an excruciating first half, our heroes land up in Pattaya, Thailand, where Lily is supposed to marry a hothead in a wheelchair called Deshpremee Singh (Shaad Randhawa). Then begins the excruciating second half…

All this has sprung, seemingly unfiltered and unchecked, from the head of Milap Zaveri, writer of the adult comedies Masti and Grand Masti and last week’s Kyaa Kool Hai Hum 3. Zaveri is both co-writer (with Mushtaq Sheikh) and director on Mastizaade, and his signature wit is in full bloom. Take, for instance, the scene in which a man appears to tell time by touching a donkey’s testicles (he’s moving them aside to see a clock tower). Or the naming of Aditya and Sunny’s superior at work as Dil Wala, just so they can call him “Boss D. Wala”. Or the idea that being gay is akin to being effeminate or of indistinct gender.

Material like this is beyond saving, though Das’ stand-up instincts allow him to salvage a line or two. Kapoor is difficult to watch as he flounces around, making faces and trying to do what Riteish Deshmukh does with somewhat better results in similar films. Suresh Menon hams unconscionably as the token gay character. And it’s particularly sad to see the veteran comic Asrani turn up as Laila and Lily’s father; it seems unfair that someone who worked with Hrishikesh Mukherjee should one day find himself working with Milap Zaveri.

This leaves the star of the film, the sole reason it’s being talked about and reviewed widely. It’s difficult to convey personality in a film that’s constantly trying to strip you of it (or just strip you: She’s fully nude in her introductory scene, with household items covering up the Parts That Must Not Be Seen), but Leone manages to infuse a few scenes with a saucy comic touch. It’s no more advanced a performance than one might find in one of the bigger-budget porn parodies they make in the US, but it gets the job (cue 15 vintage Zaveri puns) done (it’s also as effective as anything Katrina Kaif has ever done in any of her movies). Leone may not be better than this film, but she’s the best thing in it.

This review appeared in Mint.